Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Wozzeck @ Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam

18 March 2017

Alban Berg’s only complete opera is one of the most original masterpieces of the twentieth century. Taut, expressive, and packing an emotional punch like few others, any halfway decent performance of Wozzeck should leave you shell-shocked, elated and emotionally drained.

Unfortunately DNO’s new staging failed to deliver on any of the above, despite an exemplary musical performance, but more of that later. Most directors these days tend to collaborate with the same artistic team. In the vast majority of cases the results tend to be illuminating, yet there’s always a danger of falling into the trap of delivering a ‘one size fits all’ staging which barely changes from opera to opera.

Such was the case with Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging, which employed a visual aesthetic which was not only redolent of his Lulu staging in Brussels, but many of his other operatic ventures as well. Designer Malgorzata Szczesniak (sets and costumes) was his willing accomplice and swamped Berg’s finely-drawn work with so much excess baggage that it was difficult to keep up with the story and empathise with the characters.

All the clichés were there – a dumb-show of children ballroom dancing, which lasted an excruciating 15 minutes before we heard a note of music, vertiginous wigs and heels for the female characters, singing into microphones, singing into cassette recorders, transvestites, and yes – we even had Mickey and Minnie Mouse waving in slo-mo through a window.

We’re all for exciting, modern stagings that shed new light on works, and make you think afresh about an opera but this, alas, was not one of those. By the end we were thinking, “OK, fine – there you go,” which was a far cry from how we should feel at the final curtain.

Luckily DNO’s superb music director, Marc Albrecht, was in the pit. His conducting was attuned to every nuance of Berg’s fiendishly difficult score, while the playing of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra was beyond reproach.

In the title role British baritone Christopher Maltman was an unqualified success. Over the past few years he has taken on heavier roles as his voice has grown, with Berg’s down-trodden soldier now fitting it like a glove. He had no trouble riding the orchestral tumult, yet was able to pare his voice down to a whisper when required. It would be good to see him in a staging where he was allowed to cut a more sympathetic figure, but even so this was an auspicious role debut.

Eva-Maria Westbroek (another role debut) was vocally resplendent as Marie, top notes ringing out thrillingly, whilst an impressive supporting cast ensured that musically, at least, this was a night to savour.

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Wozzeck @ Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam
Prom 1: BBC SO / Oramo @ Royal Albert Hall, London